Dealing with privacy – learning from the history of the potato

For some it is sacred, for others it is the same: privacy.

Ever since the last Facebook scandal and the EU’s new data protection regulation, everyone is talking about it – our privacy.

The world is becoming increasingly transparent

How do you deal with private data in such a world? This question is in the digital space. While some want rigid regulations for their private data, others demand radical transparency. The former do not want to know their data for commercial purposes in the digital world, the others are indifferent to that. The latter are gripped by the sharing age, in which everything – including private data – is shared.

Two schools of thought

Two schools of thought have developed: While one aims at regulating the handling of data and its enforcement, the other advocates universal and radical transparency. Everybody should have access to all data and nobody should have an advantage.

The school of thought of regulation

Rules are broken – that is a human law. Anyone who knows the history of the introduction of the potato to Prussia knows this. This went down in the history of our country as the legend of the “Potato Order”: Prussia was starving, but the potato was not widespread as a food. It was only when Frederick II banned the potato as a foodstuff that he drew attention to the useful plant and was able to convince the starving Prussians of the potato as a foodstuff. And moved into our fields as staple foods. In gratitude, visitors to the grave of Frederick the Great still lay down potatoes today. Another, even clearer, example of a breach of the rules is the prohbition in the USA: alcohol was nevertheless drunk.

The same will be the case with regulations concerning the privacy of people. They will most likely be broken. Periodic leaks, such as in the case of NSAs, indicate that even the rules set by organisations themselves can be useless. NSA employees used their spying opportunities and broke the rules. Rules for protection are therefore not a promising solution. The number of controllers of these rules would never be sufficient to ensure the protection of privacy.

The school of thought of radical transparency

Here, too, the problem is the human being, who usually breaks rules. Let’s assume that Google would make all passwords for its entire internal servers public starting tomorrow. What do you think would happen? Of course – another company would be delighted to immediately suck up the data stocks of its competitors in order to analyze them. The results would sell them soon afterwards for a fortune. Even the most credulous person cannot believe that a new radical transparency would suddenly be free of the old human greed.

And what to do with your privacy now?

This is what the researchers Jaron Lanier, W. Brian Arthur, and Eric Huang have been asking themselves.

Your proposal is to give commercial value to the information that can be drawn from our privacy. In such a way that every person who allows the use of the data receives money for it. In this context, Huang has analyzed how this would affect the work of insurance companies. It seems that in this case, insurance companies are changing their business model significantly. For example, they would suddenly take back policyholders who they currently exclude because they could buy from the data.

Data is the new capital

The philosopher Maurizio Ferraris recently called in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for the introduction of a network tax. Capital is no longer industrial or financial in nature, but now has a “documentary character” – data is the new capital. We are all producers of our data and not just products for companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Therefore, according to Ferraris, we should – following Marx – also be considered the owners of these new means of production, which would not exist without us.

The value of the data, the “documentary capital

In a world in which everyone can decide whether and to what extent they disclose and sell their data, their value could also be negotiated. Somebody wants to take a picture in public? No problem. He would also like to use it, for example for a music magazine – for a report on a pop concert? In this case, each person photographed receives a monetary share that has already been defined in advance. In this way, cultural diversity could assert itself even if the world around us were completely networked.

Politics and commercialised privacy

If information is free – as the school of thought of radical transparency demands – then a state can spy on its citizens without limits. The citizens can hardly limit this. If, on the other hand, private information receives a price, then citizens can very well determine how much spying a state can afford.

The large data sets of our time confront us with difficult challenges. You are leading us into a crisis. In Chinese, the character for crisis is composed of the characters “opportunity” and “danger”.

The crisis into which Big Data is leading our society poses many dangers. But it also holds unprecedented opportunities. We should honestly look each other in the eyes and use them. Our world can get better with Big Data. We shouldn’t miss this chance.







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